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The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation: a true gem in downtown Hyattsville

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Posted on: August 15, 2022

By Jessica Arends

Just down the scruffy Hamilton Street cul-de-sac, two blocks south of Yes! Organic Market, is a small, humble blues venue that glows bright with melodies of the past. 

On a hot July evening, a musician on stage coaxes deep soulful notes from his steel-faced guitar, telling a tale of heartache and loss. Skillfully fingerpicking, he sways gently and falls into a deep focus, eyes closed. 

In the audience, feet tap out a communal rhythm, heads begin to nod and a passing train rattles the building. The song’s story of loneliness, losing one’s way in the world, and the town mill that broke down carries the group back in time and eases their modern woes. This is the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation acoustic open mic, a true gem in downtown Hyattsville.   

Founded in honor of bluesman Archie Edwards, the foundation hosts open mics, blues jams and workshops — all to keep the blues alive. The first jam took place in Archie Edwards’ Washington, D.C., barbershop, in 1959, where established and aspiring musicians of all races would gather to play and socialize. In 2019, the foundation found a new home in Hyattsville, where blues musicians from all around the world stop in to play, host workshops and share the music tradition.

Doc Altman, one of the original members of the D.C. barbershop jams, said he appreciates having a safe space in which to play original songs and new instruments. When he describes Archie, Altman’s eyes sparkle with a deep respect. Archie worked as a barber which, according to Altman, is what made him a “great blues man,” as he was in touch with the fullness of humanity. 

The open mics continue to provide an informal, welcoming environment, free of ego or pretense — a place where, according to Willie Leebel, president of the foundation, anyone can “sing, play, dance, listen and help yourself to a beverage in the fridge.”  

The venue also serves as a museum and education center, featuring many artifacts from Archie’s barbershop, including a lime green suede barber chair with an ornate chrome footrest; antique mirrors, combs and brushes; and opalescent glass bottles with cork stoppers. Plaques on the walls showcase the awards granted to the foundation, including recognition from the Maryland General Assembly for its preservation of local blues music and a U.S. Senate resolution which honors Archie as “a self-taught musician,” who “provided a haven for all who loved the blues to play, listen, and socialize.” 

Stormi Weaver, who coordinates foundation youth events, described how playing the blues is a way to learn about history and culture. “People think the blues is sad music, but the blues used to be the house party music for people who were enslaved or poor. What has me in awe is that they had nothing,” she explained. “They didn’t know how to read or write, but they taught each other music. That’s the legacy of this music: to learn it and understand it and embrace it.” 

Tom Mellman, who has been playing at the open mic for about three years, agreed. He noted that playing the blues provides opportunities to meet new people and for young people to take a break from screens. The blues “is an oral tradition, not a digital tradition,” he said, emphasizing that musicians need to learn it in real time.  

The open mic and jam sessions are “a great place to socialize and find something in your life,” said Weaver. “At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. That’s what makes a difference in your life.” 

All are welcome to join the acoustic open mic every third Thursday of the month and the blues jam every Saturday. For more information on these events, the museum and upcoming workshops, visit the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation website or just wander down Hamilton Street until you see the blue guitar above the door. 

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